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Concerns raised as company considers drilling site in St. Tammany

WWLTV.COM - Ashley Rodrigue / Eyewitness News - 4/8/14

ST. TAMMANY, La. - Hundreds of acres along Highway 1088 in the Mandeville-Abita Springs area could become home to the next attempt at bringing the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale to life.

The shale, an oil and gas reservoir, has been productive in other parts of the state, but recent interest in the St. Tammany Parish portion has shale experts antsy.

"The idea that there's drilling activity going on in St. Tammany Parish and the Northshore is quite consistent with the broader area’s potential and quite exciting when looking at the results some companies have gotten already," said Charlotte Batson with Tuscaloosa Energy Services.

Helis Oil & Gas, out of New Orleans, submitted a public hearing request late last month for its project to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, which controls permits for this kind of work.

The paperwork only details the target area to drill, close to Lakeshore High School, and target depth for fracking, 12,000 to 13,000 feet. That's leaving some residents with plenty of questions and concerns.

"Fracking and oil shale drilling has inherent risks associated with it, and any kind of accident or any kind of breach can result in permanent damage to our aquifer and ground water," said Jessica DeVun.

Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons expressed the same concern about the aquifer, but Batson said years of drilling through other area aquifers shows the concerns are not necessary.

“The Kentwood aquifer has been drilled over 4,000 times, going back before World War II, and because these processes are well regulated and appropriate guidelines are in place, the Kentwood aquifer remains safe and is safe today. The air is fine, the ground water is fine," she said, “I really think the issues is lack of awareness, to be honest."

A company spokesperson for Helis said it plans to work through the process with all stakeholders to make sure everything is done right, as they have for years.

People in the industry say the risks are not as great as the benefits of jobs, potential decreased utility rates and tax revenue.

"The people on the Northshore and southeast Louisiana should have great confidence in their state regulatory bodies to watch out for their natural resources," said Batson.

Leaders, who have already met with the company, said they plan to keep a close eye on any activity.

"I've just been fact finding on my own about fracking and what it does, what it means, how it can affect a community, good and bad. There are arguments for both sides and I'm getting both sets of facts," said St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister. “We want to make sure that even though we don't have the authority, nor responsibility to issue these permits, we want to know all about what's going on so we can protect ourselves from whatever issue might come up."

Residents say they just want these companies to hear them out.

“Maybe just get them to understand we really just want them to be careful in our area," said DeVun, "This is our land, this is our home, so we really want to take care of it and try to avoid as much as possible those risks that are associated with fracking and oil shale drilling."

And in a late development Tuesday, St. Tammany state Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, is now asking for the public hearing on the project, originally set for May 13 in Baton Rouge, to be delayed at least 60 days. Burns said that’s so leaders can review the proposal and get community input.

St. Tammany government says fracking could ruin natural beauty of the area

By Faimon A. Roberts III  The New Orleans Advocate April 08, 2014

News that energy companies are leasing land and considering drilling oil or gas wells is often greeted with eager anticipation in many Louisiana parishes, as residents and officials envision windfalls from land leases, severance taxes and fees.

But in energy industry-friendly St. Tammany Parish, the news that Helis Energy is considering putting one well — the first in St. Tammany Parish — just north of Interstate 12 has caused ripples of consternation, if not outright opposition, among some parish officials.

Of primary concern to some officials is the potential impact of oil drilling on the parish’s drinking water supply in the Southern Hills aquifer, through which Helis would have to drill to get to the oil. Other officials worry about the impact on parish infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, or about the effect of oil drilling on residents’ quality of life and St. Tammany’s natural beauty.

Helis has applied to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources for a hearing before the commissioner of conservation, normally the first step in getting a permit to drill, according to Phyllis Darensbourg, a spokeswoman for the department.

That hearing has been set for May 13.

Helis’ application outlines a 960-acre rectangular tract in which the well would be placed. The southwest corner of the rectangle intersects I-12 between La. 1088 and Log Cabin Road, and the tract extends east just past Log Cabin Road and north past 1088.

Helis is betting there is oil about 13,000 feet underground at the site, which lies at the eastern end of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, which stretches from southeast Louisiana through the middle of Louisiana and into Texas and includes parts of southwestern Mississippi.

First word of the potential well came in a blog post by Tuscaloosa Trend blog author Kirk Barrell, who called the well a “wildcat” play, meaning it is being dug in a place that has no history of production. The tract is far outside the hive of Tuscaloosa Marine Shale activity, which is in northern Tangipahoa and St. Helena parishes, as well as the Felicianas and southwestern Mississippi.

Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said that if Helis is planning to drill that far outside the area where the rest of the activity is, it must have a reason.

“They obviously feel they have got enough information,” Briggs said. “They have some good geology.”

Helis President David Kerstein referred all questions to the company’s media consultant, who did not return a message left at her office.

The type of well Helis proposes would use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as a means of extracting the oil from the ground. In fracking, chemicals, water and sand are pumped into the ground to create fissures in the rock through which the oil or gas can be extracted. The process has been controversial as residents in some states have complained about effects on drinking water and other environmental impacts.

In this case, the well would puncture not just the top of the aquifer from which St. Tammany pulls its drinking water, but also the bottom, a fact that bothers Parish Councilman Jake Groby, in whose district the proposed drilling site lies.

“If any of the well casings were to leak, gas hydrocarbons which are lighter than air/water will migrate upwards through the strata,” he wrote in an email. “If something were to go wrong, we have no alternate source of water from which to draw for the area surrounding the wellhead.”

Groby is not just a politician talking; in his day job, he’s a superintendent with St. Bernard Parish’s water system.

St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister’s first reaction was: “Oh, my gosh. ... I knew it would be quite an uproar.”

Her administration is still in the “fact-finding phase,” she said. “I am trying to find out whether we have an opportunity for as much of a say in it as possible.”

But state law limits what Brister and other parish officials can do. In Louisiana, lower levels of government, such as parish governments, are prevented from creating regulations that compete or overlap with state regulations, something other parishes discovered in trying to regulate fracking in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale. Going further, state law forbids any local agency or government from prohibiting or interfering with drilling authorized by the state.

One area in which the Parish Government could perhaps have an impact is in requiring drilling companies to help pay for any road or bridge improvements in the area where wells are drilled.

“We have to make sure those things are not impacted negatively,” Brister said.

For Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons, the prospect of oil drilling in St. Tammany is dire. “If we lose our aquifer, the town of Abita Springs would be gone,” Lemons said. It certainly could affect the town’s biggest draw, the Abita Brewery.

When contacted by a reporter, Abita Brewing Co. President David Blossman said he hadn’t heard about the proposed well and needed to look into it.

The cry has reached the state Legislature. On Tuesday, Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, sent a letter to Commissioner of Conservation James Welch, asking him to delay the May hearing by 60 days. Burns said he had only just learned of the hearing and needs more time to study the proposal. He added that St. Tammany Parish has “many aesthetic qualities, and citizens are understandably concerned about any activity that would detract from its beauty and appeal.”

LOGA’s Briggs said state regulations and technological advancements in the fracking process would ensure the integrity of the aquifer.

“The aquifer is very well protected,” he said. “They are all regulated by the Office of Conservation.”

When companies use hydraulic fracturing, they typically encase the well in a layer of cement that is designed to keep the aquifer sealed off from the well.

There’s no question the well could represent the beginning of a new wave of development. A typical well can require as much as a $15 million investment, Briggs said.

Residents who lease land to the companies could see immediate returns, while the parish’s coffers could be bolstered by severance taxes and a potential increase in property taxes, Brister said.

Now that the Helis TMS Unit application has been approved (no well permit issued as yet) we can get back to discussing the issue of a TMS test well this far from the state line.  Considering how far south of the nearest proposed TMS unit (36+ miles), the usual question is one of depth and thermal maturity (Ro).  Would the TMS be oily or in a zone of dry gas?  I was surprised that the depth definition in the Helis Field Order was not as deep as I would have expected.  So I pulled up the unit application for the most southerly TMS LA unit I could find.  In this case at this time a GDP application in the Wilmer Field, Tangipahoa Parish.  Links to both the cited units follow.

Helis Lacombe Bayou Field - TMS Depth Description Page 1

GDP Wilmer Field - TMS Depth Description Page 1

If you look at Goodrich's TMS map on page 13, you will see that in the TMS depth is not only a north - south issue, but also and an east - west issue.  In Washington Parish the TMS at its deepest is only 11,500 feet, while in W. Feliciana the TMS is 13,500 feet at its shallowest.

I'm familiar witht it, tc.  It's pretty poor for illustrating what I'm pointing out.  It does not extend nearly far enough south.  Here is one of Kirk's Tuscaloosa Trend maps with depth contours and although it does not include St. Tammany it does cover a lot more of Tangipahoa Parish.

For those who wish to make a comment on the Helis Unit application.

Comment period opens on Helis Oil's application for St. Tammany drilling project

By Robert Rhoden, | The Times-Picayune on October 14, 2014 at 3:42 PM, updated October 14, 2014 at 3:43 PM

The long-debated hydraulic fracturing project proposed by Helis Oil & Gas aimed for St. Tammany Parish is now officially open for a period of public comment, according to Robert Rhoden for the Times-Picayune.

After the submission of a revised application to the Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, the proposal will be open to public comment for the next 30 days. Helis was required to resubmit its application to further elaborate on how the company intends to maintain the surrounding wetlands’ environmental quality.

Helis is looking to drill an exploratory well near Mandeville, one of several attempts to tap into the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale. Of the total 3.53 acres required for Helis’ project under the revised application, 3.13 acres are made up of wetlands. The company plans to install a drainage sump in order to prevent stormwater from carrying contaminants into the surrounding environment.

Many residents in St. Tammany Parish are publicly opposed to the company’s proposal. The parish council has provided $125,000 to fight the fracking proposal in court. The first court hearing is on October 27.

Send written comments on the wetlands permit application to Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, Regulatory Branch, P.O. Box 60267, New Orleans, LA 70160-0267. Be sure to reference the applicant, Helis Oil & Gas Co. LLC, as well as the application number, MVN-2013-02952-ETT.

Send comments on the water quality certification to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Attn: Water Quality Certification, P.O. Box 4313, Baton Rouge, LA 70821-4313. Once again, be sure to reference Helis Oil & Gas Co. LLC and the water quality certification application number, WQC-140328-02.

State Office of Conservation grants drilling permit for Helis Oil's project near MandevilleLouisiana Fracking Debate

Representatives of Helis Oil Co. provide testimony to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources during a public hearing on their proposal to explore for oil at a site using the fracking method at Lakeshore High School in Mandeville, La., on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. It marked the first time the Department of Natural Resources has held a public hearing outside of its usual venue in Baton Rouge.

The state Office of Conservation has approved a drilling permit for Helis Oil & Gas Co.'s proposed drilling and fracking operation near Mandeville, moving the controversial project a step closer to reality. The approval was announced late Friday (Dec. 19) on the state Department of Natural Resources website.

The project still needs a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and a water quality certification from the state Department of Environmental Quality before any work can begin.

"The permit is approved. But there are conditions," DNR spokesman Patrick Courreges said Friday evening.

The conditions include various points that were made at a public hearing DNR hosted Nov. 12 at Lakeshore High School north of Mandeville, including water and air testing, Courreges said. The drilling operation also must be a "closed-loop" system, meaning drilling mud and produced water from the well cannot be dumped into a pit, but must be put directly into tanks when brought to the surface, he said.

"It can never leave containment," Courreges said.

The questions about the air and water testing and fluid containment were brought up by attorneys representing the town of Abita Springs and the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, who oppose the project.

"We put that as conditions on the permit," Courreges said. "We made it legally binding."

Helis spokesman Greg Beuerman said Friday evening the company was happy with the approval but had not yet fully examined the Office of Conservation's notice.

"Certainly, based on what we know right now, we are pleased," he said. "We are not terribly surprised that the application has been granted. We've been operating on that assumption all along.

"It's an important step in the process. We're gratified that it's occurred now, and we look forward to the process of moving ahead with this project."

Rick Franzo, president of the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, also said he was not surprised by DNR's approval of the permit.

"It's nothing we didn't expect," he said. "We expected a rubber stamp approval from DNR. We believe the stumbling  block for the (Helis) project will be with the Army Corps."

According to the permit, there will be no pits or earthen pits, either lined or unlined, at the site, which is just north of Interstate 12 about a mile east of Louisiana 1088. Steel tanks will be used in the closed-loop system.

Helis must restrict its acquisition of water for fracking purposes to surface water from private ponds that are not replenished by groundwater wells, the permit says. Acquisition of the water cannot begin until the sources are approved by the Office of Conservation.

The company must provide full disclosure of the chemicals it uses to frack the well.

Helis must monitor groundwater, air, storm water and noise and make any reports associated with the monitoring available to the Office of Conservation and the public.

And before drilling, Helis must provide a work plan that is satisfactory to the Office of Conservation for each of the monitoring programs, the permit says.

The drilling permit gives Helis approval to drill an exploratory vertical well 13,374 feet deep. The company has said it would then take several months to study data from the well.

If the information is promising, the company said it would then seek to drill horizontally and use the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, method to crack the shale and release oil so it can be extracted. However, Helis would need to amend its drilling permit and obtain state approval to begin that portion of the operation.

Last month's public hearing on Helis' permit application drew a large crowd of citizens, most of whom opposed the project. The hearing, which gave everyone an opportunity to comment, lasted nearly eight hours, going well past midnight.

Testimony was taken from consultants for Helis, and attorneys for the town of Abita Springs and Concerned Citizens cross-examined the consultants and called one witness of their own.

Many citizens and some parish officials say the public health and pollution risks associated with fracking are not worth whatever benefits may be derived. They cite problems elsewhere in the country and say the parish should not gamble with its soil, water, air and quality of life.

Helis says the drilling can be done safely and that it would safeguard the parish's environment. While opponents have been the most outspoken, many citizens and a number of business groups support Helis' plans.

St. Tammany Parish and Abita Springs have filed lawsuits in an effort to block the project. The lawsuits are pending.

© 2014 All rights reserved.

Boy how much more discouragement can an operator get without just saying to heck with Saint Tammany Parish.

Helis working to clear next regulatory hurdle for Tammany well

Regulatory hurdle would clear the way for drilling pad

Helis Oil & Gas Co., which received a permit from the state last week to drill a vertical well as a first step toward fracking in St. Tammany Parish, is now working to clear another regulatory hurdle: getting a wetlands permit that it needs to place a drilling pad on a 3.2-acre site that is 91 percent wetlands.

Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers, which would grant the wetlands permit, sent two letters to the company asking it to address concerns about the project.

Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Helis, said the project manager told him the response is undergoing a final review and will be sent to the agency very soon.

The Corps’ first letter, dated Dec. 2, asked Helis to respond to several concerns about the controversial project that were brought up in public comments on the wetlands permit application. The second letter, dated Dec. 4, restated concerns that had been raised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and also raised a new issue: whether Helis has adequate contingency plans in place for a major storm that causes flooding in the area, such as Hurricane Isaac in 2012.

The EPA has urged the Corps to withhold the wetlands permit until the company can prove that drilling a well at the site, near the southeast corner of a wooded 960-acre tract northeast of Mandeville, will have the smallest environmental impact possible.

Opponents of fracking, who have packed public meetings in St. Tammany Parish over recent months, are hopeful that acquiring the wetlands permit will prove an insurmountable obstacle to the project.

The state Office of Conservation put a number of conditions on the permit that it granted to drill the 13,000-foot vertical well, but Beuerman said that none of them came as a surprise to Helis. The company already had indicated it was willing to take the steps the state is requiring, he said.

“The department felt that they wanted to memorialize that in the permit, and we get it,” he said.

Those conditions include using only surface water in privately owned ponds for the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process, which involves injecting water, sand and other chemicals at high pressure into a horizontal shaft to create fissures in rocks, through which oil or gas can be pulled to the surface.

Other conditions spelled out in the permit include extensive air, water and noise monitoring. Disclosing the chemicals used in the fracking process, which also is spelled out in the permit, is already required, Beuerman said.

Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for the Office of Conservation, said the number of conditions attached to the permit was unusual, and that the detailed list stemmed from a public hearing held in November at Lakeshore High School.

But that hasn’t stopped fracking opponents, such as the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, from calling the Office of Conservation a rubber-stamp agency.

Helis does not view the permit conditions or the cost of implementing them as a deterrent to the project, Beuerman said. Nor, he said, is Helis concerned about the rapidly dropping price of oil: The company is taking the long view, he said, and is not looking at the price of oil today or tomorrow.

But falling oil prices have led at least two other oil companies to stop drilling in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, the geologic formation that underlies St. Tammany Parish, and that Helis will be tapping.

The Associated Press reported that Comstock Resources, of Frisco, Texas, announced last week that it would stop drilling in the Tuscaloosa formation until prices rise. That followed action by Halcó n Resources, which said last month that it was leaving the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale.

Wells into the Tuscaloosa shale thus far have tended to be more expensive than those drilled into other shale formations, though energy firms expect the costs will fall as the geology of the Tuscaloosa is better understood.

But Helis isn’t the only company sticking to its plans to drill into the Tuscaloosa. Beuerman noted that another energy firm active in the shale, Goodrich Petroleum, is expanding its drilling in the formation.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.

Helis addresses questions on drill plans

Permit sought for fracking

Helis Oil & Gas Co.’s proposed St. Tammany Parish well would tap a previously unexplored rock formation that is limited to the southern part of the parish, according to documents submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

If the formation proves to be a viable source of commercial oil and gas production, it could increase the known fossil fuel reserves in the state and help the United States gain energy independence, Helis contends in the documents.

Though the formation is part of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, it has not been explored to date, and Helis wants first to drill an exploratory vertical well on the site to see whether the formation could be commercially profitable.

Helis identified the formation only recently by studying available but “limited” data from old vertical wells, according to documents filed with the Corps of Engineers, which needs to grant Helis a permit to drill in wetlands before the project can proceed.

The uncertainty means the rock formation has only a 50 percent chance of being commercially viable, a figure previously cited by a geologist who reviewed the plans for the Corps and with which Helis agreed, the documents say.

“It is far from certain that any drilling operations will be conducted after the completion of Phase I,” Helis says in its most recent filing, a 500-page response to questions raised by the Corps in December. Despite the uncertainty, Helis is willing to take what some have estimated is a $16 million to $20 million gamble on the well, even with oil prices at their lowest point in years.

The low price of oil has driven some companies out of production activity in the Tuscaloosa Shale, but Helis spokespeople have steadfastly insisted that the current price will have no impact on the company’s plans.

A spokesman reinforced that sentiment Friday.

“Helis remains committed to this project and to the established processes for permitting the well, regardless of oil prices or the period of time this particular process will take,” Greg Beuerman wrote in an email.

Data from old wells show that a swath of the underground formation roughly parallel with Interstate 12 is thick enough to accommodate a horizontal well needed for fracking, Helis said. The formation thins out the farther north one goes in St. Tammany Parish, though the formation’s exact boundaries remain unclear pending further data, Helis said in the letter.

Helis said it chose the site of the proposed well — a 960-acre tract about a mile north of I-12 and about a mile from Lakeshore High School — in an effort to avoid the coastal zone south of I-12 and to isolate the well as much as possible from residential areas to the west and sensitive environmental areas such as Bayou Lacombe and the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area.

Because the formation it is eyeing is specific to the local area, Helis emphasizes in the letter that it would be impossible to move the project northward to another part of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale where drilling is already underway.

“Helis’ proposed project cannot be conducted and its purpose cannot be fulfilled by simply drilling a well anywhere within the established Tuscaloosa Marine Shale Play that is being actively produced to the north of St. Tammany Parish,” the letter says.

Some experts have estimated that the TMS contains as much as 7 billion barrels of oil. If the new formation is a viable commercial source of oil, “it will increase the known oil and gas reserves within the state available for potential production and contribute to achieving the national policy goal of energy independence in the United States,” the letter says.

Helis is prepared in case the formation proves able to produce commercially viable amounts of oil. The company has leases or options on about 60,000 acres in St. Tammany Parish.

Helis’ description of St. Tammany’s unique geological formation is part of a voluminous response to a December letter from the Corps. That letter detailed several concerns of the Corps and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA urged the Corps to reject Helis’ application for a wetlands permit until the company can show that the well would have minimal environmental impact. Issues raised in that letter and a similar one sent two days earlier — such as storm contingency plans, traffic impacts, water sources and legal entanglements — are all addressed in Helis’ response.

Helis’ proposal has generated considerable public heat, including lawsuits filed by the Parish Council and the town of Abita Springs. Most of the opposition has centered on Helis’ plans to use horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil from the St. Tammany site.

Fracking is a process by which water, sand and other chemicals are injected into the ground at high pressure. The chemicals crack the rock, the sand or other ceramic material props the cracks open and oil or natural gas then can be extracted.

Helis has proposed drilling the well in two phases: an initial phase, in which a vertical well would be drilled and samples collected for testing, and then a second phase in which a mile-long horizontal shaft would be drilled and fracking would be employed. The company has promised to plug the well and not move on to phase two if the samples collected in the first phase are not promising.

But in St. Tammany, as in some other communities around the country, the prospect of fracking has created a backlash. The Parish Council filed a suit in Baton Rouge to block the plan, and a hearing on that suit is scheduled for Feb. 2.

This weekend, two activists who led a campaign in Denton, Texas, to get an anti-fracking measure on the ballot are appearing in St. Tammany to share what they learned. That measure passed in Denton but is now being challenged in court.

Fighting back against the vocal opposition, business groups such as the Northshore Business Council and the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce have come out in support of the Helis plan. They point to potential economic benefits to local businesses and say fracking can help reduce U.S. dependence on oil imports.

Winning a wetlands permit is the only remaining regulatory obstacle before Helis can begin construction on the 3.2-acre drilling pad. Last month, the state’s commissioner of conservation issued a drilling permit for the project, though the permit came with a list of conditions to which Helis must adhere.

This wetlands permit application is Helis’ second. The company was forced to submit a revised application after geologists expressed concerns about whether a proposed 10-acre drilling pad — suitable for both the vertical and horizontal wells — was necessary for an exploratory vertical shaft.

If the wetlands permit is issued and Helis later decides to drill the horizontal well, it will have to apply for another wetlands permit from the Corps to expand the drilling pad.

I am posting this article to alert those members interested in following this discovery well that discussions from this point forward will be posted in the St. Tammany Parish Group.  There you will find links to the SONRIS Lite Well File and the Drilling Permit with plat and correspondence.  A link to the new discussion in the St. Tammany Group follows:


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